How to Lose the War on Terrorism:
III. An Exchange of Narratives

Mark Perry & Alastair Crooke

Asia Times, June 3, 2006

There was a time in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, when Western intellectuals debated the meaning of the attacks that occurred on that day and the most appropriate way to counter them. There was a welter of voices, a cacophony of opinions.

Struggling to understand the event’s magnitude, German philosopher Jurgen Habermas reflected that September 11 carried with it a “foreboding atmosphere” that exposed “a long-known vulnerability of our complex civilization”. French intellectual Jacques Derrida went further, suggesting that the event’s complexity forced us to question our most “deep-seated conceptual presuppositions”. Opinion makers, intellectuals, politicians, foreign-policy analysts, and the great mass of the public wrestled with September 11’s meaning, as if suddenly caught off balance by the sheer audacity of the event. And so it was that for the merest moment – a shimmering and hopeful period so brief that it now seems that it might never have occurred at all – Americans, and others in the West, rejected “the received concepts” of “war” and “terrorism” and shook themselves from certainty’s slumber.

The hopeful moment passed. Driven by the shattering visions of the assault – the specter of living beings falling through the clear air of lower Manhattan – the United States and its allies attacked Afghanistan and drove the Taliban from power, jailed al-Qaeda members and their sympathizers, strangled Middle Eastern banks and purged financial accounts, identified an “axis of evil”, passed new and more stringent security measures, legislated new powers to domestic spying agencies, and increased funding to their intelligence services. They unseated Saddam Hussein. Yet after five years and the expenditure of thousands of lives and billions of dollars, there remains what Habermas calls a “vague feeling of angst”: an indefinable yet precise sense that somehow and in some way we in the West have gotten this thing, this “war on terrorism”, terribly wrong.

But how?

In the first two parts of this series on our dialogue with political Islam (How to Lose the ‘War on Terror’, Asia Times Online, March-April), we provided a simple recounting of our exchange with the leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah, Jamaat e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood. Our dialogue was a straightforward exploration of political principles and tactics, a defense of our central claim that, in failing to differentiate among Muslim political groups, Western policymakers are needlessly bloodying the Islamic world’s landscape and broadening the globe’s crisis.

But over the past two years, our exchange with Islam’s leaders – and now too with policymakers in the United States and Europe – has gone beyond the simple political formulas of diplomacy. In a series of smaller and more private meetings from Beirut to Istanbul and Brussels, from London to Washington and Jerusalem, we have begun to explore the intellectual foundations of our confrontation so that we might, finally, address the intangible “feeling of angst” that so permeates our conflict.

What we mean when we say …
The varying public responses to our first two articles focused primarily on two statements: the first, by a leader of Hamas who acerbically warned us against lecturing (“we don’t want you to talk, we want you to listen”) and the second to our claim that the West’s image of al-Qaeda is reflected by a narrow set of ideological misconceptions propounded by a parochial political elite – policymakers whom we described as Western takfiris. [1]

The first comment was greeted with broad approbation, the second with widespread skepticism, the responses dividing themselves evenly along ethnic and religious lines: Arabs and Muslims praised Hamas’ warning that we must listen as well as talk, while Westerners derided our takfiri description as mere “political sloganeering” and hinted that our exchange typified that of “do-gooders” who naively believe that the world can be ruled by the Sermon on the Mount.

The responses themselves point up significant and long-standing differences in how the West and Islam fail to communicate. The Western media’s use of experts to decipher meanings preceded the Oslo Accords by 20 years, when news broadcasts regularly reported on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by featuring Israeli officials appearing alongside Middle East experts: “So tell us, Professor, what do the Palestinians think?” It was only after Oslo that Palestinians were allowed to speak in their own voices – or that we were allowed to listen.

In the wake of September 11, Western news outlets reverted to these pre-Oslo traditions, featuring expert commentators filtering Islamist views for an audience whose opinions on Islam have been shaped by … expert commentators. The global communications revolution has proved singularly unable to reverse this practice, in part because broadcast corporations have proved vulnerable to political and economic pressures – Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television is barred from broadcasting in the United States and Europe because it is “a terrorist entity”, and no satellite company is willing to take on Al-Jazeera’s English-language service.

The media’s seeming inability to present unfiltered commentary is, however, neither universal nor causative, but particular and derivative, and the result of deep-seated and historically rooted mistrust of Western policymakers toward Islam’s leaders. This mistrust was more recently mirrored by an angry exchange that we engaged in with an employee of a US foreign-policy organization, who hypothesized that the reason the West does not listen to political Islam is that political Islam has nothing to say:

“You spoke to the leaders of Hezbollah?”


“And to Hamas?”


“And they said that they wanted democracy?”


“And you believed them?”

The skepticism in these words is pernicious, but by no means unusual: they are intended to empty our dialogue with Islam of its content and so translate the message of Islam into a form that reflects US policies: “Hamas says they believe in democracy, but what they really mean to say is …” Nor was the claim unintentional; the critic’s acerbity was a purposeful negation of our belief that language not only plays a central role in political experience as well as our belief that the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah might be capable of telling the truth – and of defining themselves.

Our response, we believed, was pertinent: “Do you oppose Hamas and Hezbollah because you believe they are incapable of telling the truth, or do you claim they are incapable of telling the truth because you oppose them?”

Particularly since September 11, the US and its allies have approached Islam not to understand it, or speak with it, or listen to it, but to interpret it. Such interpretation is not “liberating” but, as the Western thinker Susan Sontag would have it, “reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling”. It is meant to poison our sensibilities.

Even so, such interpretation is essential, many in the West believe, because the language of the Islamists is shadowy, unreachable and coded, while ours is transparent, accessible and honest. When we say we support democracy, we mean it; when they say it, they’re lying.

Speech acts
Thus our imprecation to “listen” is more than a political conceit (or an attempt to replace the real world of politics with the Sermon on the Mount), it is the central message of many of the most important and influential of Islam’s political leaders, for whom talking and listening are a core strategy for de-escalating the confrontation with the West.

This message was at the center of a recent exchange in Beirut with Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussain Fadlallah. Educated in Najaf, where his scholarship gained respectful attention, Fadlallah is one of a handful of grand ayatollahs in the world, a community that represents the depth of Islamic thinking inside Shi’ism. Fadlallah carefully parses out his beliefs in powerful but phlegmatic phrases. As a part of the Shi’ite elite, he has followers who subscribe to his teachings, and he takes great care in his use of language. Fadlallah and his handful of colleagues are unique: there is nothing comparable in the West – it would be as if each Catholic cardinal had a different view of Christianity, and attracted students to his views.

Aging now, Fadlallah does not sweep into a room as he once did, and his guests can see the wear on his face. But he is a man who cares about words. There is, in his most recent pronouncements, a careful worry about the dilution of language, and the violence such dilution portends. More pointedly, he argues that the West’s current political discourse is designed precisely to close off an exchange and erode understanding.

“We can talk about the differences between freedom fighters and terrorists, about legitimate resistance and illegitimate resistance, and we can participate in dialogues and in debates – but every religion condemns the killing of civilians,” he said. “The West knows this. Yet the West does not take care in what it says or in how it uses and applies its categories, or whether it follows its own principles. Its greatest mistake is in using these terms too readily. It needs to be more thoughtful, more attentive, more discerning in its use of language.

“There is a dilution of language at work here. What we need to realize is that words have meanings, they can lead to violence.”

Fadlallah is known for his courtesy and is puzzled by its absence in others. He is accused of masterminding the 1983 bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, regularly described (most recently by CNN) as the work of Hezbollah – which did not exist at the time. The US responded to the barracks bombing by attempting to assassinate Fadlallah with a car bomb in 1985, killing 73 Lebanese. Fadlallah’s later years have been spent in an attempt to engage the West in the importance of speaking clearly. It has been a frustrating experience, a conclusion implied in a story purposely told to us by one of his assistants prior to our meeting.

“There was once an interviewer who interrupted His Eminence to give his own opinion,” this assistant said. “And Sheikh Fadlallah allowed the interruption to pass into silence. But when he responded, he said: ‘Young man, when you talk I will listen carefully to everything that you say. After you are finished I will respond, and you will remain silent and listen very carefully to me until I am finished. This is the discipline I employ.'”

Fadlallah’s concern with the effects of Western discourse about Islam was most apparent in the wake of the publication of caricatures of Mohammed in a Danish magazine last year. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was most outspoken in condemning the demonstrations that followed several months later, claiming that Iran and Syria “have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and to use this to their own purposes. And the world ought to call them on it.” Jack Straw, who was then the British foreign secretary, parroted this imprecation, jarringly repeating Rice’s “call them on it” homey Americanism.

US President George W Bush, meanwhile, lectured Muslim governments that they needed to “be respectful” of the Western value of freedom of speech and telephoned the Danish to express his “support and solidarity”. In the pages of the Washington Post, commentators Alan Dershowitz and William Bennett supported Bush’s call by condemning US newspapers for failing to follow the Danish example of printing the cartoons, saying the failure undermined the doctrine of freedom of speech. “When we were attacked on September 11, we knew the main reason for the attack was that Islamists hated our way of life, our virtues, our freedoms. What we never imagined was that the free press – an institution at the heart of those virtues and freedoms – would be among the first to surrender,” they wrote.

The loud condemnations of Islam’s reaction reached deafening proportions when the views of American conservative commentator Fred Barnes were aired throughout the region: “It tells us a lot,” he said. “It tells us that our enemy is not just al-Qaeda. That there [are] Muslims all over Europe and all over the world who are certainly enemies of Western civilization … Now, I think we’ve learned a lot from this. We see the Muslims’ contempt for democracy, for freedom of speech, for freedom of the press, and particularly for freedom of religion.”

Muslim protests over the publication of the Danish cartoons was deeply rooted and emotional, but were fed and exacerbated by the West’s insistence that its defense of the cartoons was simply a reflection of its commitment to freedom of speech – to its “values”. That such a defense might be viewed as hypocritical did not occur to Western commentators, who failed to perceive any symmetry between the West’s condemnation of Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television (to cite one example) and Islam’s condemnation of the Danish cartoons. Why is it that freedom of speech can be extended to those who insult the Prophet but not to those who then strongly protest the insults? What kind of presuppositions are made by those who view public demonstrations as an attack on democratic values?

That the banning of Al-Manar and the cartoon controversy were somehow related in the Arab political context would have come as a surprise to Americans, who remain ignorant of the comparison. Al-Manar was first barred from broadcasting by the French, in December 2004. Then-prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin stated that the ban was being implemented because “Al-Manar’s programs are incompatible with our values”. The French ban was followed by the decision of Al-Manar’s US satellite carrier to pull the plug on the station and, one year later, the inclusion of Al-Manar on the US State Department’s Terrorist Exclusion List.

“It’s not a question of freedom of speech,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. “It’s a question of incitement to violence, and we don’t see why, here or anywhere else, a terrorist organization should be allowed to spread its hatred and incitement through the television airwaves.”

Why is it – Muslims were asking during the February cartoon demonstrations – why is it that Al-Manar’s condemnation of Israel is “incitement to violence”, while Fred Barnes could blithely condemn Muslims as “enemies of Western civilization”?

This said, Al-Manar’s programming content is not only a concern for the West. Hezbollah foreign minister Nawaf Mousawi (as we noted in Part 2 of this series, Handing victory to the extremists, April 1) acknowledged his embarrassment that the channel aired a documentary on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and its bald celebration of martyrdom, with the Dome of the Rock as a backdrop, seems not so much a dilution of speech as its escalation.

Our claim is not that Al-Manar should get a “pass” on hate speech simply because Fred Barnes is guilty of the same offense – or that Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah is some kind of sandal-clad prophet with a copy of Emmanuel Kant prominently displayed on his bed table – but that deeply rooted hate speech cannot be ended by refusing to talk or listen. Indeed, Mousawi’s embarrassment about Al-Manar’s programming was news to policymakers in the United States, when it need not have been. An exchange with Hezbollah over the West’s (and Fadlallah’s) view that hate speech leads to hate crimes (“that words have meanings”) might have resulted in a de-escalation of the war of words that is fueling the current conflict. Or perhaps not. But banning Al-Manar in the West had precisely the opposite effect to what was intended, for it gave it increased legitimacy in the region by proving that, in the words of an Al-Manar official, “The West wants to hear only one voice, and that’s its own.”

Fatefully, the cartoon controversy reached its peak just prior to Ashura, the Shi’ite holy day commemorating the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Mohammed, at the Battle of Karbala, in 680 CE. Ashura is traditionally a day of mourning, and Lebanon’s Shi’ites commemorated it this past February 9 by attending a mass rally capped by an address by Hezbollah general secretary Sayyad Hassan Nasrallah (described in an Associated Press report of that day as “a black-turbaned, bearded cleric”).

Born in Lebanon but, like Fadlallah, educated in Najaf, Nasrallah is perhaps the most magnetic, sophisticated and respected political leader in the Middle East. He is a mercurial public speaker, and the tens of thousands of Hezbollah supporters who came to hear him believed he would issue a rallying cry of protest, a scorching condemnation of the West, and a defense of Muslim anger. Surprisingly, he did not. Instead, Nasrallah echoed Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah’s continuing concern about the potential violence of language. His message was angry, but his audience sensed in his words a deeper frustration – that through the previous week the Muslim world had suffered through a torrent of words, a lecture about values, without any chance to respond. Now, he would give a response.

“Defending the Prophet should continue all over the world. Let Condoleezza Rice and Bush and all the tyrants …” – and here, unaccountably, Nasrallah seemed to search for the appropriate words, and then finally found them – “… let Condoleezza Rice and Bush and all the tyrants – shut up.”

Nasrallah’s frustration galvanized his listeners, whose celebratory response to his imprecation mirrored the views of the leaders of political Islam in our initial series of exchanges with them in Beirut last year. In the lead-up to those meetings, our future interlocutors were adamant, and recounted a meeting they had had with American and European academics the previous year. The meeting had featured presentations by American and European scholars that emphasized that the West would enter a dialogue with political Islam only if three prior conditions were met – that Islamist groups renounce violence, recognize Israel, and disarm.

“We wondered, if we met those conditions, just exactly what there would be to talk about,” a Hamas official said. The meeting became a lecture, but rather than tell their American and European counterparts to “shut up” – as Nasrallah had done – the Islamist delegates walked from the room.

The sphere of violence
Our experiences, both in our dialogues last year and in our most recent exchanges with European and US officials, have focused on a reigniting of listening and talking not simply because the leaders of political Islam have emphasized this need. Rather, our dialogues were established on the belief that the kind of talking and listening in which we were engaged was different from the ubiquitous reconciliation conferences that dot the Middle East’s political landscape.Our goal was not to end violence, but to circumscribe it within well-defined limits – an end-point we believed essential to our goal of persuading Western leaders to differentiate between those who perpetrated September 11 and those who condemned it, between those who depend for their legitimacy on the support of their people and those who don’t. Our purpose was, then, recognizably selfish: to the degree that the West held Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat e-Islami and other moderate Islamists responsible for September 11 (the Islamist “Gironde”, in our formula) was the degree to which Islamists would conclude that the West held Islam collectively responsible for September 11 – and the degree to which violence would be visited on the innocent.

The evident interest of Western officials in our exchange was a tacit, if partial, recognition of these views – that important officials had concluded that power is not solely the monopoly of the US and its allies and that, while to “turn the other cheek” in the face of September 11 involved a lack of dignity, those attacks do not absolve politicians from engaging in diplomacy. We say partial recognition, because the increasing interest in our exchanges was not kindled from altruistic motives, but from looming failure – the widening war in Iraq, the spreading violence in the region, the feckless implementation of the West’s program of promoting democracy, as well as the increasingly strident voices in Islam demanding an airing of their grievances.

It was not happenstance that these fears were repeated, sometimes word for word, by the leaders of political Islam, whose desire for dialogue was fueled by “the widening war in Iraq, the spreading violence in the region, the indifferent implementation of the West’s program of democracy, and the increasingly loud voice of our people that they be allowed to air their grievances”.

Never mind: while our dialogue has not resulted in a political breakthrough, simply confirming that an exchange of narratives might be possible holds out hope for the reversal of Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that “war is diplomacy by other means” – an attempt to remove the current conflict from the sphere of violence to the sphere of talking.

Our colleague John Alderdice – one of the first of Northern Ireland’s “Unionists” to express a willingness to talk with Sinn Fein, and a key official in the negotiations of the Good Friday Agreements – recounted his own experience of moving a conflict from the sphere of violence to the sphere of talking. One of the first conditions for doing so, he noted, is that both sides must have confidence that they will not be weakened by a dialogue. Usually, a participant who refuses to participate does so because he fears his own weakness. Alderdice was puzzled, therefore, by Western intransigence in recognizing the need for an exchange with the leaders of political Islam: “We in the West have tens of thousands of troops in the Middle East, dozens of ships on the high seas, and control of the world’s financial markets,” he said. “So what exactly are we afraid of?”

Talking and listening, then, are more than a metaphorical construct, a repetition of the Sermon on the Mount, or a faith-based reconciliation program by another name; it is, rather, an attempt to palliate fears, put the individual back at the center of history, and negate the intellectual apartheid that robs words of their content. It is also an attempt to deny the efficacy of those in the West who would refuse Islam the richness of its diversity at the same time that it rejects Islam’s rhetoric of the West’s collective guilt.

“We know that in war innocent people will die, because this is the nature of war,” Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah told us. “But this does not excuse responsibility or negate the requirement that we do everything that we can to save the innocent. This is an ideal that the United States and the West has and this is the ideal that we also have. It is a basis for the beginning of an understanding, because it is this belief that separates us from our enemies in the world and inside of our own societies.”

1. Takfiris are Muslims who view all Westerners as kafirs (infidels).

This article first appeared in Asia Times.

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